A UK university’s plan to make its entire professoriate reapply for their jobs or face redundancy has led to the departure of several leading research staff, it has been claimed.
Teesside University has faced heavy criticism since it announced in July that all of its 26 non-managerial professors would be invited to apply for a new role of “professor (research)” or leave, as part of efforts to improve the university’s standing in the 2021 research excellence framework.
Times Higher Education reported last week on a REF-driven review of research staff at the University of Hertfordshire’s business school, which, alongside the Teesside audit, has raised fears that the next REF may create an incentive for universities to lay off researchers whom they do not want to submit to the assessment.
In relation to Teesside, in July, more than 750 academics signed an open letter condemning what they called an “ignorant…make-or-break audit”, while the University and College Union criticised the audit’s “bizarre timing” ahead of the summer break.
A senior academic at Teesside has now told THE that the university’s audit had led to the departure of about half of those under assessment, with some moving to other institutions and others taking voluntary redundancy or early retirement.
“Some of the professors who have left are globally recognised research leaders, some have brought in large [amounts of] funding and others have produced 4*-rated research papers,” said the academic, who did not wish to be identified.
“Pushing everyone through this process was totally unnecessary – the university only really needed to target one or two individuals who were sliding quietly towards retirement,” he added.
The “destructive and ill-devised strategy” appeared to be “driven by a desire to compete with the Russell Group” and failed to recognise that Teesside was primarily a “teaching-led institution with some pockets of research excellence”, the academic added.
He also criticised the “highly complex metrics system” in which professors were awarded a score out of 32 based on indicators including research output and income generation, but also on their “status” within their scholarly community.
“It included things like whether you had been invited to give a keynote address at an international conference – many people just don’t want to spend their lives in airports doing this sort of thing,” he said.
Staff were required to score at least 16 out of 32, the academic said, but many of those who met the threshold felt demoralised by the audit and were looking to move elsewhere, the academic said, adding that plans for several REF submissions were now “in disarray” after the sudden departure of so many senior staff.
Jon Bryan, a UCU regional official, said that the recent process had “demoralised a significant group of senior staff at the university and impacted on how it [the institution] was viewed by academics”.
A Teesside spokesman said that the creation of the new “professor (research)” role related to the university’s commitment to “significantly expanding and strengthening its research activity around its core disciplinary strengths and Research Grand Challenge themes".
All of its professors were invited to move to the new role, which is based “around a single, clear and consistent role description and a new salary to reflect the enhanced responsibilities”, with 14 taking up the posts.
“Some professors chose not to move to the new role and instead left the university of their own volition in order to explore other opportunities,” he added, stating that there are now plans to appoint new professors to “significantly expand our research professor team”.
“Teesside University is committed to building on its world-leading research and enhancing its reputation for academic excellence,” the spokesman said, stating that the institution is “continuing to invest and [has] made a considerable new commitment to our research portfolio, including a number of graduate tutors, PhD studentships and new academic appointments.”